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Torture does not provide safety and actually exacerbates societal problems, Juan Méndez, U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishmentand prominent human rights advocate, said in a lecture on Thursday.

The lecture coincided with Méndez receiving the 2015 Adlai Stevenson Award for a “career of service to the global community,” according to the award’s website.

Méndezexplained that even if one could say that torture provides intelligence and information, it also leads to a decrease in the citizens' trust and faith in their country.

He added that citizens have fallen into a relativism about the moral condemnation of torture fueled by some state practice but also by our culture.

“The culture in which we live is one that makes us feel that torture is ugly but it has to happen, that it’s inevitable, that somebody has to do it, that it keeps us safe — and if it keeps us safe, then we might as well look the other way and live with it,” he said.

Mendez stressed the importance of understanding and upholding the international normative framework for human rights as essential to human rights advocacy and global accountability.

He noted that the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which establishes such a framework of obligations, is ratified by many nations and includes obligations of the state to prevent torture, obligations which Méndez sees as the foremost concern.

Mechanisms for prevention of torture include periodic review of police practices, allowance for civilian oversight of law enforcement bodies and re-training of law enforcement officials, Méndez said. But prevention goes beyond these actions, he said.

“More than anything, the obligation to prevent is broader than that and encompasses any other things that the state has to do,” he explained.“And one of them, and the most important perhaps, is to investigate, prosecute and punish every act of torture.”

Méndez also drew attention to the state of torture in the United States, noting the executive order President Barack Obama issued upon coming into office in 2009 that prohibited torture. While Méndezacknowledged the apparent effectiveness of this order, he called for further action on the part of the United States, especially regarding torture tactics used after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“Preventing new torture is not enough,” Méndez said. “The United States has to tell the truth and come clean about what happened.”

Méndez also discussed the death penalty, saying that he thinks it should be abolished and questioning whether there is such a thing as a painless form of execution.

“If our country can retain the death penalty but has an absolute prohibition on the consequences of solitary confinement and death row, or with certain forms of execution, they might as well do away with the death penalty altogether,” Méndez said.

Méndez classified the death penalty as a form of torture, also noting that poor prison conditions, prolonged solitary confinement and even some forms of health care can become methods of torture in their own right.

Furthermore, solitary confinement, which he focused on in his first report as a Special Rapporteur, also qualifies as an inhumane means of punishment, he noted.

There is, however, hope for positive change, Méndez said. He noted that the U.N. General Assembly adopted a revised standard last month for the minimum rules on the treatment of prisoners that specifically prohibits solitary confinement in indefinite and prolonged cases, as well as in the case of pregnant or nursing women and children.

“I think it’s very important for the international and legal framework to be used as extensively as possible — to attack the different aspects of torture that I’ve mentioned — because they give us tools to attain not a de jure, but a de facto prohibition and actual practice of torture in the near future,” Méndez said.

The lecture, which took place at 4:30 p.m. in Robertson Hall, was co-sponsored by the Princeton-Trenton Area Chapter of the U.N. Association of the USA and the Program in Law and Public Affairs.

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